The chips are beginning to fall in the driver market as Lotus have finally confirmed that Pastor Maldonado will partner returnee Romain Grosjean in 2014. The announcement concerning Kimi Raikkonen’s replacement at Enstone has been eagerly anticipated ever since the Finn declared his departure back in October. However, the news of Maldonado’s arrival has angered many fans as the pay driver debate rumbles on. Nico Hulkenberg has undoubtedly been beaten to the seat by Maldonado’s pocket, yet the Venezuelan’s appointment is not as dire a forecast for the future as some may perceive.
“It is a fantastic opportunity for me to join the Lotus F1 team for 2014,” said Maldonado. “It’s no secret that I have wanted a change of scene to help push on with my Formula 1 career and the Lotus F1 team offered the very best opportunity for me to be competitive next season. The regulations and cars will change significantly so it is a very good time for a fresh start.”
Maldonado’s appointment at Lotus has been touted as ‘the worst decision ever’ by some fans, yet I for one would disagree with the forecast – not entirely, but the dramatic statements portray a dire situation which is not really the case. Unfortunately, the signing of Pastor over fellow Lotus hopeful Nico Hulkenberg is a money over talent deal – Maldonado’s lucrative links with the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA will give Lotus a much needed financial boost. Hulkenberg lacks the funding which a team like Lotus require, especially with 2014 pushing all teams to the limit of their budgets. The signing of the German was only ever viable if an investor provided money. Quantum Group came tantalisingly close to signing a deal with Lotus, yet the questionable financial legitimacy of the owner seemingly derailed the contract. If the money was secured, Hulkenberg would have the drive – unfortunately for the German, the deal was never signed and so Lotus needed Maldonado’s money to simply build the 2014 car.
Unquestionably, this is why fans are frustrated at the signing – Hulkenberg deserves a premium seat, yet has been beaten to it by a driver with money. It is certainly a blow for Hulkenberg who has grappled for supremacy with Maldonado for his entire career. It should not be forgotten that Hulkenberg lost his Williams seat at the end of 2010, as the team opted to take Pastor and his giant wallet instead. Now, for the second time, Nico has been beaten to a seat by a certain Venezuelan.
However, it is not all bad news, (at least from my perspective). Many of you will undoubtedly be tempted to click away when I suggest that the signing of Maldonado is not as bad as people are proclaiming, but hear me out. Pastor’s financial assets have helped him through his career and he is far lower on the driver talent pecking order compared to the likes of Nico Hulkenberg. However, he has shown signs of pace in his career, with his GP2 title in 2010 providing ample evidence of speed and consistency. Meanwhile, his pace was abundantly clear at the start of 2012, as he claimed a number of positive results – most notably, his victory in Spain. He would have even had a chance of claiming another podium in Singapore if his FW34 had avoided technical failures. In both 2011 and 2013, Pastor has been given ineffective machinery by his team – it is yet to be seen if he can perform consistently in a premium car.
Lotus Team Principal Eric Boullier may be biased, yet he added a very valid argument: “It is clear that Pastor has pace and potential – demonstrated by his 2010 GP2 Series title success and then through strong races throughout his career at Williams. We are convinced that we will be able to provide the correct environment to enable him to flourish regularly on track.”
In a perfect world, Nico Hulkenberg would be confirmed as a Lotus driver for next season. However, it is not a perfect world and Formula One is as much a commercial game as it is a motor race in the modern era. While pay drivers are bad for the sport, it is a sign of the times. Pastor Maldonado deserves his place in Formula One, despite what many people would argue – perhaps not in a premium seat but certainly within the midfield. Maldonado is not the pay driver we need to be worried about – the likes of Sergey Sirotkin are the drivers who threaten to change the DNA of the sport.